As our economy and the products it creates become more complex, trash pick-ups and industrial composting are just a few of the services in which local government must develop new approaches to support a sustainable, functioning community. It’s not very difficult to convince everyone in a town to place their garbage cans at the end of their driveway. That step was accomplished only within the last half century. But encouraging consistent participation in recycling requires more than offering a bare minimum service, which is the standard in the United States. We pick up trash and recycling, but citizens receive no feedback about their success at sorting and cleaning recyclables, nor confirmation that materials are recycled.
Local governments must partner with citizens and businesses to develop the ideas and generate the support that make programs work. With local support, cities and counties can kickstart the circular economy, which will deliver public and private innovation to make our lives efficient, sustainable, and prosperous while maximizing recycling and judicious use of natural resources.
The U.S. recycling rate has hovered around 34 percent for the past five to eight years, though it is slowly declining instead of rising. Roughly two-thirds of everything we throw away ends up in a landfill or incinerator. And that’s just the average rate across the nation. There are wide differences between states.
Earth911 analyzed a study that found in California, 53 percent of household waste gets recycled while in Oklahoma, only 4 percent does. Local government may have failed to provide recycling services, or people may be disinclined to separate materials for recycling because they believe their efforts won’t make a difference. Either of these reasons is cause for concern, because the U.S. is running out of landfill capacity.
From the same study, only 28 percent of Americans reported living in communities that strongly encourage recycling. These communities typically had options for recycling including curbside programs and drop-off sites for e-waste. The rest of Americans live in communities that haven’t placed a priority on developing a robust recycling program, leaving lots of room for improvement!
People can use technology to reorganize their communities as recycling platforms. Similar to emerging cloud platforms like Uber or TaskRabbit, community platforms could connect local residents, businesses, and government so that they can cooperate to recycle, reuse, and recirculate materials successfully. Mobile apps can also provide feedback to recyclers to help improve curbside sorting and find more materials that can be recycled.
Communities may even reimagine how services are funded, providing payments to members of the community who make the circular economy work for all. Such experiments are underway across many parts of the economy. In recycling, the value of materials recovered is seldom shared with the consumer or business who takes the first step to recycle. Here’s an example demonstrating that financial incentives work.